A two-year missionary stint has helped Magic reserve deal with skepticism.
By BRUCE LOWITT
Published November 17, 2003
ORLANDO - Britton Johnsen had his share of doors closed in his face, on the street and around the NBA. But if his faith has taught him anything, it is to go on to the next door.
He believed one eventually would stay open. One did, in Orlando. Coach Doc Rivers saw in him some impressive qualities and welcomed him to the Magic.
Johnsen, 24, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as are his parents, brothers and the former Lindsey Bradley, his wife of 19 months. After his 1997-98 freshman season at Utah, Johnsen put basketball aside for two years to serve as a missionary, spreading the word of Mormon.
He returned to the Utes and played well as a sophomore and better as a junior.
Then came a grim senior season. He missed two early weeks with torn thumb ligaments and the final month with mononucleosis.
Going from starring role to role player erased the 6-foot-10, 210-pound forward's name from NBA lists of potential draft choices.
"It was frustrating," he said, "but I remembered lessons I'd learned on my mission. I realized there are going to be hard times in life. How you react to them is what makes you a man. I just tried to keep my head up and work hard."
While Johnsen pondered a future in Europe, the NBA's developmental league or the CBA, Rivers invited him to the Magic's summer league for free agents and rookies. "I saw athleticism, I saw good basketball instincts and I saw hunger," Rivers said. "And I knew who he played for so I knew he'd been coached well."
Utah's Rick Majerus coached Rivers at Marquette in the early 1980s. "I told him, "Britton has a coachability quotient and a team quotient you're going to like,"' Majerus said. "He can be a solid NBA player, but I'm prejudiced. I wish I had a son like him."
A spiritual atmosphere
The Mormon Church has missions in every state and around the world. When members turn 19, they often offer themselves as missionaries. "I'd have liked to learn a new language (overseas), but I was willing to go wherever they sent me," Johnsen said.
They sent him to Houston.
Johnsen served on 15 missions, each with a different companion also assigned by the church. They shared a small apartment. Six days a week they began at 6 a.m. with two hours of scripture study, first alone, then together. Then came the hard part: looking for down-on-their-luck people in the street and knocking on doors to proselytize.
"We teach people about Jesus Christ and our faith and also do a lot of service work. ... We run into people depressed about life or alcoholics, drug addicts, and teach them programs to help them overcome their addictions and basically try to bring a spiritual atmosphere into peoples' homes."
They were rarely welcomed. "Most people don't want to be bothered," Johnsen said. "It's not easy, people belittling you, making fun of you. I think we got mixed up a lot with Jehovah's Witnesses. ...
"I think once in a while my height helped me. People wanted to know whether I played basketball, and when I told them I played at Utah sometimes it broke the ice, and we'd share a 20-minute spiritual discussion about God, share our beliefs, have them read what we gave them, pray about it and invite them to our church."
Upon returning to the Utes, Johnsen needed part of his sophomore season to regain his form. Still, he was second-team All-Mountain West Conference, scoring in double figures 14 times, and was named to the fall and spring semester academic honor rolls. The next season he was MWC player of the year.
As a senior, Johnsen wore a padded brace on his right hand for a month after his thumb injury. "It was like playing with a mitten," he said.
"He showed great courage and heart after the injury," Majerus said. "He couldn't really catch the ball or shoot, but he defended very well."
In February, Johnsen contracted mononucleosis. Despite being benched, Johnsen "was just terrific," Majerus said. "He came to every practice, cheered his teammates on, stayed involved. He kept getting tested right up until the last game, trying to play."
Johnsen played with Orlando and Washington summer league teams and went home to Salt Lake City for six weeks. The Magic called the first week of September. He signed a one-year contract.
His father sells carpets; his mother is a teacher. "We were in debt our whole lives," Johnsen said. "I'm definitely going to be very frugal."
If Johnsen has a drawback, it's that he's too nice.
"Britton's got to do what (John) Stockton does, divorce his offcourt and oncourt personalities," Majerus said. "John's a very nice guy off the court but not on the court. He's so hard and tough that he's always accused of being a dirty player. Britton, on the court, sometimes he's too nice, too unselfish."